The Precepts of Buddhism are Precepts of the Mind
LB 2/2002 Thematic Article No. 7: Zen Master Young San Seong Do
in conversation with “Lotusblätter”
Ethics and the Buddhist precepts are directly concerned with human activity. Who is the one who is active? The very existence of the precepts has to do with the study of one’s own mind, research into the self and the nature of things. Working with the main Koan “Who am I” is the core of the Korean Zen Master Young San Seong Do’s method of teaching. Since 1998, Zen Master Young San Seong Do has been living in Berlin where he founded the International Zen-Temple. Hae In Seong talked with him in Berlin for Lotusblätter.
Lotusblätter: You teach Gongan Seon (Jap. Koan Zen) in Berlin and in other cities in Germany. What is Gongan Seon?
Young San Seong Do: First we should discuss Seon and then we can talk about Gongan. That is the correct order to understand Gongan Seon. ‘Seon’, in Sanskrit ‘dhyana’, means observing the mind in stillness. Ever since Buddha’s death, countless practitioners have developed various methods of mediation. However, the point of the practice has always remained the same: That is to overcome all suffering, to realise one’s true nature and attain enlightenment. But before I enter into the question of Gongan Seon, I would like to pose you a question: What are you? A human being? God? An animal… or something else?
LB: A human being.
SD: You say you are a human being. But that is just an idea, a thought. What is it that knows that I am a human being?
LB: I do not know.
SD: So, one who does not know, is looking for one which is not known. (A do not -knower is looking for an unknown.) If you do not know your own self then it is not sensible to know what Gongan Seon is. What use is it knowing what Gongan Seon is if you do not know who you are? It is of prime importance to know what one is, what one’s own self is. As long as you are not clear about who you are, then you are straying. Gongan Seon is the determined effort to see one’s self, the attempt to discover one’s true nature. That is a means of our practice. one’s own self who does not know, i.e. a question “What am I ?”, this is a Gongan, and the determination to break through this question is Gongan Seon.
LB: You said that Gongan Seon is an ideal method of meditation for the modern man and woman. Why is that?
SD: Gongan Seon is a style of Meditation that enables one to combine and unite everyday activities with practice. You do not have to give up your everyday life. Exploring one’s true self can be done even during one’s most mundane affaires. Many people however just want to sit quietly in a peaceful place and probe deeply into their true nature and thus discover the truth. That is a problem.
LB: You mean that one can penetrate one’s true self not only while sitting silently but also in each and every activity? Even at work?
SD: Hae In Seong!
SD: What is it that just answered, “yes” ? Does the very master who just answered “yes” exist only while sitting or also at work?
LB: This master exists all the time.
SD: If that’s the case, then it is possible to meditate at any time and in every situation. Endeavouring to penetrate into and examine thoroughly this own master is Seon practice. Actually it is very easy! But most people don’t know this and only believe that maybe if they sit quietly long enough, they will find something. However, Gongan practice is a method, which can be applied in every moment and even in the busiest of situations of the day. If there is a method of meditation, which enables people, even in these fast times we live in, to maintain a conscious awareness of their true nature, then it is this one. For beginners, however, sitting in silence is nevertheless very important, as is regular participation in intensive meditation retreats (Korean: Yong Maeng Jeong Jin). The beginner gradually gains the strength necessary to establish and develop this meditation in daily life.
LB: What then is the relationship between the Sila Paramita and Seon practice?
SD: Sila, maintaining the precepts, serves as an orientation in life. There are many precepts in Buddhism; there are the five precepts, the ten, forty-eight, two hundred and fifty, three hundred and fortyeight, etc. All are means to realising the Mind. Once the practitioner has realised his Mind then there are no precepts any more to adhere to. That’s why one says that the Buddhist precepts are precepts of Mind. The mind becomes pure when one practices the precepts of Mind. Every deed originates from Mind. If one’s mind is pure then the deeds are likewise pure. Therefore, the beginner should receive five or ten precepts from the Master, which should be maintained constantly. Not upholding the precepts harms the practice. Nevertheless, when it comes to saving others, one may break one’s vow, but one’s should return immediately afterwards to keeping to the precepts as this in turn assists in saving the practitioner. For beginners, receiving and observing the precept is like a ladder which leads to enlightenment.
LB: What is the relationship between Sila and the other Paramitas?
SD: Sila is the foundation of the six Paramitas. It is a basis for the life of practitioners, and gives them the strength necessary to realise the other Paramitas. The six Paramitas are signposts or indications showing how one should lead one’s life as a Mahayana Buddhist. Thus one finally realises what is termed “the Great Love and Great Mercy of Buddha”. How can one attain this? First a balanced state of mind is essential. Mind itself, shining, clear and steadfast as it is, is true face of Buddha. Such a steadfast Mind can be attained by keeping to the precepts. If a practitioner upholds and practices the precepts, then his or her mind will become calm. As such, he or she can regain control of an otherwise confused and muddled way of life. One should gain revitalised energy which brings with it a self-awareness and confidence for one’s daily life. If one then practices the other Paramitas with such freshly attained energy, one can overcome all of life’s sufferings. Life becomes peaceful, and the great wisdom of enlightenment reveals itself. In the end, upholding the precepts is nothing other than pure Mind itself. If one’s mind is pure, then there are no extra precepts to uphold:
“Not to realize one’s own Mind, this is in itself violating the precepts,
Seeing one’s own Mind, then there are no precepts to uphold.
No longer upholding the precepts to observe, where then is precepts to be violated”
LB: Europeans have particular difficulties in keeping and living accordingly to the Buddhist precepts, do not they?
SD: The Buddhist precepts are in fact expedients towards enlightenment. As such, the ability to practice the precepts has nothing to do with one’s place of birth or one’s culture. It is simply a difference of whether one follows Buddha’s teaching or not. It is also very difficult for Asians who do not believe Buddhas Dharma to uphold the precepts. Whereas those who believe in Buddhas teaching and live according to it enjoy a full and satisfying everyday life, no matter whether they are Europeans or Asians. Buddhism is above all a religion of practice. An eminent teacher once said; “The Samadhi could be experienced only by practice with maintaining precepts, and prajna, wisdom is attained by Samadhi.”
This (Sila, Samadhi, Prajna) is called the Threefold Learning. That’s why these are the main essential principles for Buddhist’s guidance.
LB: For a Seon Master, what does it mean to uphold the precepts?
SD: For us Seon monks, the precepts are like “a message, which is meant by a lotus flower blooming in the midst of fire”. If it is hot, I remove some clothing. If it is cold, I put something on. When I am tired, I sleep.
LB: You mentioned earlier that beginners should make a special effort to observe the precepts correctly?
SD: Seon practice means to cut off all thinking, such as illusions, etc., to become free and to save all sentient beings from suffering. If a practitioner has not yet freed himself from vulgar apetites or from his behavor to act, how could such a person be called free? In the same way, if a Seon practitioner is attached to good food or a life of pleasure, could one say that he or she is practicing correctly? Therefore, Seon practitioners should put all their efforts into sitting practice to see their true nature. Once one sees one’s own true nature, because of being free from one’s precepts, one doesn’t have to feel concern any more about one’s doings. Figuratively speaking: If the root of a tree is healthy, it would not be needed to worry about the branches or the leaves. And so I hope that you all practice diligently and save all sentient beings.
Der Tagesspiegel NR. 16 933 / Freitag, 14.01.2000
Liberation from the 108 Passions
Whoever takes part in the ten day intensive meditation in the International Zen-Temple in Kreuzberg needs discipline.
Kreuzberg. The day proceeds according to strict rules and in complete silence: rising at four in the morning, 9:30 p.m. is bed time. Between waking and sleeping there are more than ten hours meditation. Even the meal times (strictly vegetarian) follow a precise procedure. Nothing should disturb the concentration. The ten day meditation in 22 Oranienstrasse demands extreme stamina.
" Beginners would not be able to cope ", says Tae Gong. He, a teacher, has been a practising Buddhist for ten years, and one and a half years ago became a student disciple of Zen Master Seong Do from Korea. The 56 year old Buddhist monk is the only one in Germany teaching the classical Gong-An Seon (Japanese Koan Zen) Buddhism in the Chinese-Korean tradition. Its aim is to bring the five senses, as well as thinking, to full concentration upon the question " Who am I ? ", thus achieving " pure consciousness " explains Tae Gong.
The participants of this monthly meditation retreat must also liberate themselves symbolically twice a day from the 108 passions of being. This is done with so called prostrations, a sort of bowing, explains Tae Gong. However, despite the strict regulations, the number of interested participants has increased since the foundation of the temple a year ago. Last time there were 48 men and women who submitted themselves to the ascetic rituals.
Weekly events include meditation practice and dharma speeches given by the Zen Master. Besides the German gathering, regular visitors to the temple include Korean, English, American, Polish and Italian practitioners. Occasionally the Master travels to Cologne or Munich for weekend meditation retreats.
The way to the temple in Kreuzberg is through two gates leading into a courtyard. With its white walls, straw mats and numerous plants, the first floor of this former factory building radiates a welcoming atmosphere. The meditation hall is dominated by a golden Buddha statue, calligraphy decorates its walls. Its straightforward decor however offers little distraction.
Buddhism helps people to free themselves from value judgements and dependencies and to live directly in the present moment, elucidates Zen Master Seong Do thus explaining the growing interest in his religion in western circles. Its aim is to awaken a life governed by one’s own strength and responsibility. Everybody can achieve this " happy state of mind " emphasises the Master. " "The Buddhist teaching is simple. "
Practice and stamina are nevertheless pre-requirements. Even after many years of practice, Tae Gong admits that it still takes quite a time before he can achieve the heightened state of concentration. And as to the question of whether it is easy to apply the Buddhist perspective, Seong Do answers that everyone should answer that for themselves. " Because ", the Master asserts, " the world arises from your mind. "